CHN: Congress Almost Done with Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Spending Bill; President Still Threatens Veto

The full Senate passed its annual appropriations for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (H.R. 3043) on October 22 with a veto-proof majority of 75-19 (  At $149.9 billion in FY 2008 funding (the current fiscal year), the bill exceeds FY 2007 levels by $5.4 billion, and is $9.6 billion higher than President Bush’s budget proposal.  The Senate provides $1.9 billion less than the House appropriations for Labor-HHS-Education.
What’s next?  Informal negotiations are now under way to come up with the final bill to be agreed upon by House and Senate. Rumor has it that the two bodies will more or less split the difference, adding approximately $1 billion to the Senate number.   The President has issued veto threats for both the House and Senate versions, since they both exceed the amount he proposed.  Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote of those present in both chambers.  Although the Senate seems sure to be able to override, when the House approved its Labor-HHS-Ed bill in July, the vote was 276 to 140, two short of a two-thirds majority.  In a final vote, there would likely be fewer absences.  There are currently two vacancies in the House; if all the other 433 representatives voted, 289 would be needed for a successful override.

Congressional leaders have not announced their intentions yet, but it has been reported that they are considering finishing informal negotiations on Labor-HHS-Education appropriations by November 1, then formally appointing conference committee members to approve the final bill to be brought before the House and Senate during the week of November 5.  Assuming the President carries out his veto threat, override votes would have to be scheduled soon.  All appropriations for FY 2008 run out on November 16.  By that date, Congress must either pass all the annual spending bills or approve another temporary extension to avoid shutting down many services.

It is also possible that Congress will decide to combine Labor-HHS-Education funding with one or more other appropriations bills.  Because Congressional leaders have promised veterans groups that they will approve the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill before Veterans Day (November 12), it is possible that these two appropriations bills will be sent to the President as one package.  The President has said he would sign the latter bill, although he would expect to see other spending cut so as not to exceed his budget’s total for annual appropriations.

Both the House and Senate versions of Labor-HHS-Education spending allow modest growth above inflation for programs such as community health centers, K-12 education, mental health and substance abuse services, family and community services, and Pell grants for college students.  The House provides better funding levels than the Senate in many instances, but in general both are far better than the President’s proposal, which cuts Labor-HHS-Education programs below FY 2007 spending.  Advocates are hoping that some of the best features of both House and Senate bills will be retained.  For example, the House increases home heating aid (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP) by about $450 million over FY 2007, a 20 percent increase, while the Senate version level funds LIHEAP (that is, allows inflation to shrink the program even more).  With energy prices rising, advocates hope that the final bill will agree upon the House level for LIHEAP.  Although House funding exceeds the Senate in many programs, there are exceptions.  The Senate funds Head Start at nearly $7.09 billion (a little above inflation), while the House provides $6.96 billion (a little below).

Advocates distressed over the inability so far to override the President’s children’s health veto in the House (see article this issue) should remember that the votes have been closer for Labor-HHS-Ed.  Broad coalitions have been at work urging Members of Congress to vote for the final bill.  One letter of support attracted about 850 organizational signers; another set of letters in 12 states secured a like number of groups in those states alone.   ( Other activities, from paid advertising in targeted districts to call-in days are being undertaken.

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